Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Performance Spotlight: Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat

Note: This is the second post in a series dedicated to For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, looking at some of my personal favorite performances in Hitchcock films. The donation button and links for the blogathon can be found by scrolling down.

Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat 

"Lady, you certainly don't look like somebody that's just been shipwrecked."

We begin with a smoking ship tumbling into the waves. Bits of wreckage drift by: a copy of The New Yorker, a chessboard, a dead body.  Amidst all this is a woman in a lifeboat, looking gravely out at the destruction. She's wearing a mink coat. She flexes her fingers restlessly. And then she notices a run in her stocking and sighs in frustration, as if to say "Well, isn't that the final fucking straw?"

It's as perfectly succinct a character introduction as you could ever have.

In Lifeboat, Tallulah Bankhead plays Constance "Connie" Porter, a famous and wealthy journalist, who has the bad luck of being on an American ship that gets torpedoed by the Germans in World War II. She's managed to make it to one of the lifeboats, bringing a typewriter, suitcase, and a diamond bracelet with her. As per the rules of disaster films, her fellow survivors represent a microcosm of society: a millionaire industrialist (Henry Hull), a nurse (Mary Anderson), a radio operator (Hume Cronyn), the ship's steward (Canada Lee), an average-Joe sailor (William Bendix), a mother (Heather Angel), and an engineer with socialism on his mind (John Hodiak). But the lifeboat discovers one more survivor: a German seaman (Walter Slezak), who speaks no English at all and whose intentions are a complete mystery.

According to Alfred Hitchcock, the decision to cast Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat was a simple one. When he thought of a lifeboat drifting around the North Atlantic, he wanted to put "the most oblique, incongruous person imaginable in such a situation." That was Tallulah.

Back in elementary school, my friends and I would sometimes pretend to hold fake cigarette holders and drawl, "Dahling, dahling." We didn't know who we imitating of course, but that was the cultural legacy of Tallulah Bankhead, a woman that had once been one of the most talked-about celebrities of her age. She was true-born Alabama aristocracy and gorgeously attractive (a young Daphne du Maurier called her "the most beautiful girl I've ever seen in my life.") Her talents for sex, partying, and outrageous comments would probably have gotten her by, but she had considerable talents as an actress. She made her career on stage, bringing passion and verve to parts that were good and cartwheeling when the plots stalled. She had tried Hollywood for awhile, but refused to take it seriously--and audiences didn't respond the same way they had to her on stage. By 1944, she was no longer the glittering star she'd been and her beauty didn't have the same shocking power, but she was still unforgettable. For the role of Constance Porter, a woman whose glamor and cool wit can withstand even a German U-boat attack, Tallulah Bankhead was the first and best choice.

Whenever people trot out the old chestnut of "He/She only played themselves ," my inner retort is always, "You think that's easy?" I know I couldn't do it. And does it matter if a performer is drawing on their own personality if that personality, as in Bankhead's case, is entertaining and vivid?  Go watch a Paris Hilton performance for comparison. Tallulah Bankhead in Lifeboat just seems to get more brilliantly enjoyable each time I see her. And I wanted to feature her here because in so many ways, her performance is the antithesis of what we think of when we think of Hitchcock and his actresses. Bankhead is not a tormented frosty blonde or a fluttery bit of comic relief or a passive little marionette for Hitch to manipulate. Hitchcock is the director, but Bankhead is her own auteur.

Connie Porter is a strange kind of heroine for a 1940s war film. She's older, cynical, unattached and clearly not concerned by it. Even in the midst of debris and destruction, she's funny, drawling out "darlings" and "my pets" and the occasional "you clumsy fool," all delivered in Bankhead's amazing black-smoke-and-bourbon voice. She's a sophisticate but a self-invented one, as she admits to John Hodiak's character, Kovac. It's a character that calls to mind some of the later roles of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis but also offers up something completely different. For one thing, Bankhead is totally casual about sex in a way that neither Crawford or Davis could be onscreen (maybe that's part of why they were the movie stars). Even though the attraction between her character and Hodiak's never goes farther than an onscreen clinch, Bankhead conveys a real sexual charge that somehow bypasses both a 12-year age difference and Code-era conventions. But even more importantly for Bankhead and Lifeboat is this: she has the ability to be a leading lady and at the same time be fully on the same level as her costars. When Bankhead draws lipstick initials on Hodiak's chest or plays cards with Henry Hull or interrogates Walter Slezak, she's no descending goddess. She's part of the gang.

Even though Lifeboat is an ensemble film, Hitchcock does emphasize Connie's viewpoint many times. In the midst of dark and dramatic moments like Canada Lee's recitation of the Lord's prayer and Heather Angel's total break of sanity, Bankhead's reaction is kept at the front.

Using Tallulah Bankhead of all people as the audience surrogate shows some real mischief on Hitchcock's part. But from a narrative perspective, it makes sense. Connie at the beginning of the story is the most comfortable and assured of the Lifeboat cast. The task of the film is to test that assurance, to strip her of her mink and jewels and typewriter. Essentially, to make her just as uncomfortable as it wants to make the audiences of 1944, reminding them of the darkness that needs to be fought. Bankhead's descent into survival mode is America's too.

But if Bankhead is given the heroine's part by design, that doesn't mean the actress doesn't do her part to grab some extra attention. There's a fun game to play with Lifeboat that I like to call, "Spot Tallulah's Funny Background Business." It would be harder to find group shots where she doesn't have some bit of scene-stealing business to take your eyes off everyone else. In a scene where she already has a cigarette, Bankhead ups the ante with a side glance that would make even Dietrich look unsteady.

Or here, planting her head on her knuckles like a thought balloon is about to emerge.

 Or here, in a shot where we're meant to notice the darkening of John Hodiak's brow. But all the while Bankhead's sprawled across his lap in a way that doesn't say "weak, dehydrated, starving survivor of a shipwreck" so much as it says, "public ravishment to commence shortly."

With as much as I've made of Bankhead and the idiosyncratic charms of her character, you might think this performance was pure camp. And yet it isn't. Camp would stretch the reality of the film; Bankhead never does. It's one of the things that separates Lifeboat from the boilerplate genre of disaster films (well, technically it's a war film, but it's got the "disparate characters thrown together" angle so let's call it even). The quirkiness and humor of these characters never breaks the real drama of their situation.

But wonderful as it is to see Bankhead exhale one-liners and play up to the camera, my favorite scene of hers is played relatively straight. Connie and the others are trying to encourage Gus, the injured seaman, to submit to an amputation. Gus, however, can only think about his girlfriend Rosie, a woman who loves to dance more than anything. "If my leg goes, Rosie goes!" he snaps. Connie, in patient, come-to-mother tones, tells him, "I don't know Rosie but I know women. Some of my best friends are women." (The sweetness in Bankhead's voice only makes that line funnier.) She continues on, lecturing Gus about the loyalty of women, how broken-hearted Rosie will be that he would rather die than trust her. All the while you can hear both the sympathy that Connie has for Gus and the sugar she's pouring on, trying to convince him.

When Gus lets slip that Rosie's old boyfriend's been around and that Rosie keeps asking him about life insurance policies, Bankhead glances to the side for a moment. Then she presses on twice as hard, her voice throbbing with feeling ("...think of her back home laughing and dancing...not sure whether you're dead or alive").  She sounds like some patriotic radio announcer. After Connie knows she's sealed the deal, Bankhead lifts her eyes upward for a moment, muttering under her breath, "God forgive me." Bankhead's performance gives the perfect counterpoint to the cool, flip Connie we were introduced to. We see her intelligence, her humor, and her gift for manipulation, along with a very real compassion and warmth.

One reason I love Lifeboat is that it's a wartime propaganda piece that doesn't sentimentalize women. Our main heroine is not a dewy-eyed young woman bravely sending her man off to war. She's a cool, sarcastic forty-something with no apparent interest in being a wife or mother or patriotic helpmeet. And our other female character Alice (Mary Anderson's pretty great here too) may be a lovely young nurse with a gentle voice, but she's also the one who leads the others in a savage and mindless attack. When a man tries to hold her back, she rushes in with redoubled fury. These women are courageous and selfish, violent and loving; they are human.

Because of this, even something that would feel patronizing in another film (Connie being forced to give up vain, frivolous things like diamond bracelets for the common good) seems organic. Connie isn't being molded and humbled into a good little woman, she's a person pushed to the brink of survival. In the moment when Connie has finally lost everything she valued, Bankhead lets loose with this deranged, Halloween-witch cackle that's bound to raise the hairs on the back of your neck.

As a Hitchcock film and as a war film, Lifeboat never really got a fair shake. Damned as apologia then, damned as propaganda now. It's really, for my money, the best of Hitchcock's war films (Not counting Notorious). For all that Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur made speeches about the "little people" who would fight against evil, it's Lifeboat that really showed the humanity and love for those little people. Even down to a detail like a woman checking her stocking after a torpedo strike. Connie Porter is Tallulah Bankhead. But hell with it, she's also us.

This post is part of For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. If you want to make a donation (proceeds are going towards the restoration of The White Shadow, a formerly lost film that helped kick-start the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock's career), here is the link.


  1. Brilliant. I guess I've always been discouraged about "Lifeboat" because John Hodiak is so very DULL. You're right, though; Tallulah is amazing.

    Do try playing yourself sometime; I do it all the time and it's fun! Thanks for the great read....

  2. Lifeboat is one of my favorite movies of all time! Thanks for bringing it back for me. What a great post.

  3. Tinkyweisblat: As a kid watching this movie, I really didn't like Hodiak. Just itchy velcro to me. I've since mellowed on him a bit as a kind of aversion of the typical leading man.

  4. I {heart}RhodyL Thanks for commenting! Glad to see another Lifeboat fan.

  5. Thanks for such a great and thought-provoking piece. I'm also a big "Lifeboat" fan and have never understood why it didn't connect. I'm also such a big Tallulah fan that I included her as a featured character in my novel about the Garden of Allah hotel, "The Garden on Sunset." When I learned that she lived there, I couldn't not include her as a character. She leapt off the page as soon as I started typing!

  6. Rachel, I even love Bankhead in 'Die!Die! My Darling' With that voice deepened by cigarettes and emphysema, no one could toss off a line like Tallulah -- "Wipe that FILTH off your face, Patricia!"
    Didn't she win the NYFCC best actress award for 'Lifeboat'? She certainly deserved it.

  7. I loved reading this. Bankhead was just a fabulous person. While I've never seen Lifeboat, I know of it. I think I might watch it the next time I see it on TCM, just to hear that cackle you talk about.

  8. Rachel, that little mot about "public ravishment" had me chortling- that is exactly how she looks in that picture, next to that absurdity of the darkening brow.

    I was also inspired to enter a fairly basic request on that inescapable search engine and came up with this- is that Bankhead we're (not) seeing?

    As for your review and Lifeboat, I am completely and utterly sold. I had not seen it before and it was never on my priority list but I'm getting a copy forthwith. Thanks.

  9. MartinTurnbull: I'm not surprised you wanted to include Tallulah! I myself have an odd desire to see Tallulah Bankhead as an amateur sleuth.
    Like some of those old Whitman books that had a famous actress solving mysteries in fictionalized form.

    Mas82730: I'll have to try that film. Thanks for the rec and the comment.

    KimWilson: Glad you enjoyed it. I used to be able to catch Lifeboat all the time on TV when I was a kid. Maybe because it was one of the Hitchcocks they liked to show in the afternoon.

    Shamus: So happy you liked that line, since it took me a few minutes to decide exactly what that image was. That's quite a picture you found. I sometimes think, judging by a lot of contemporary comments about her, that Bankhead's looks never quite photographed to their full potential. Not that she didn't look beautiful, but that she had an incredible attraction in real life that photos and her handful of movies don't fully convey. Thanks for stopping by!

  10. I need to know if Tallulah could actually speak German. Her speaking of it was completely natural in the film.